Google Instant - blurring the line between searching and browsing

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You've probably noticed by now that Google just made a major change to their search product. Results now appear as soon as you start typing your search query and they continually update as you refine your search. This feature is called "Google Instant" and Google is selling it as a way to save time. I believe that it will end up making search faster, but I really don't think that's what it's about. Google Instant has the potential to fundamentally change how people find content on the web. I'll write a post next week talking about some of the potential positive and negative impacts of Instant, but today I want to take a high-level look at how content discovery works right now, and how that might change.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don't expect anything to change overnight. I think that Google Instant is a very important step forward in online content discovery, but I don't want to overreact and make it seem like this will change your life in any immediate way. It's cool, but not that cool.

Ok, so let's go over why search exists in its current form. Back in the day, the world wide web was basically just a collection of files on different servers across the world. There were so few web pages out there that people would make lists of the pages that they liked most, and then visitors could browse these lists to find new content. This is how Yahoo got started.

Eventually there was so much content on the internet that people couldn't realistically browse it all. It was so overwhelming that companies like Yahoo had to allow users to search for specific information. Online search was born, and the idea of "browsing" the internet was pretty much dead. There are still a number of sites that enable discovery of new content through browsing (news sites, Digg, Reddit, etc) but no site has managed to allow users to browse all the content on the web. For the past 15 years, the only good way to find information across the entire internet was through search.

Search is better than browsing in a lot of ways, but it also has some limitations. The good thing is that since you can enter whatever keywords you want, you always find content that is relevant to your interests. The problem is that you can't search for things that you don't already know about, so search isn't a very good way to discover content about new topics. Maybe there's a political issue that you would find interesting, but if you don't know to search for it, you'll never learn about that topic from Google.

So that's where the world is right now. You can use Google or Bing to search for information that you already know about, or you can go to a news site or social bookmarking site to learn about totally new topics. Browsing and search are two totally different processes, each with strengths and weaknesses. I think that Google Instant has the potential to change that over time.

Google Instant is all about predicting your search terms. You start your search, and Google immediately shows you results that might be what you're looking for along with other search terms that seem related. This means that every time you do a search, you'll almost certainly end up seeing suggestions for popular topics that you weren't actually searching for. And since you can easily scroll through the suggested topics, you end up being exposed to a much broader spectrum of content than you were with traditional search. What would have been one simple search query can now turn into hours of new discovery. All of a sudden, search and browsing seem to be merging together.

Does Google Instant make browsing-focused websites obsolete? Not at all. Instant is still miles away from truly combining search and browsing, but it's a step in the right direction. Now imagine if Google can incorporate social bookmarking, trending news, and even editorial suggestions into their suggested topics. Online search is still in its infancy, and I can't wait to see what's next.

Note: I realize that search engines have had suggested search terms pop up as you type your query for at least a year or two. That's similar to what Google Instant does, but the suggestions seem much more accessible now. This is more of a UI distinction than a technical one.

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